Maetreum of Cybele is back in the news again as its battle for property tax exemption moves to the New York State Court of Appeals. After the Appellate Division of New York’s Supreme Court ruled in favor the Maetreum, the Town of Catskill sent an appeal to the state’s highest court for a final decision. In a press release Monday, the Maetreum of Cybele said:
[We have] been forced to put all our planned projects for this year on hold because the Town of Catskill has appealed our appellate level unanimous three judge win in our court case for equal treatment under the New York property tax laws.
The Wild Hunt has been covering this case since its beginnings in 2009. Here is a timeline of events as they happened:
In 2007 the Maetreum of Cybele, a nonprofit religious organization, petitioned the Town of Catskill for property tax exemption. The organization was turned down after the “town lawyer, Daniel Vincelette, toured the building and issued a damning report describing a decrepit structure that stank of cat urine, lacked visible religious symbols, and operated as a crypto-housing project” (Watershed Post, May 8, 2010,)
In 2009 the Maetreum filed a grievance with the town’s Board of Assessment Review claiming “religious discrimination.” The Board upheld the tax assessor’s denial leading to the Maetreum filing a lawsuit with the state Supreme Court in Greene County. In a letter to the Wild Hunt Rev. Cathryn Platine and Rev. Viktoria Whittaker wrote:
We own real property and run a brick-and-mortar establishment in the Town of Catskill in Greene County, New York. Our property consists of a historic former Catskill Inn called Central House and approximately 3+ acres of land with an outdoor Temple/Grove in the hamlet of Palenville. We purchased the property 2002 and turned it into a Pagan Temple and Convent … The Town of Catskill has continued to deny our exemption to this day in open violation of New York tax law which mandates the property tax exemption for religious and charitable organizations
In 2010 the case, Maetreum of Cybele versus the Town of Catskill, went to court where it lingered for over a year. During that time the Town repeatedly petitioned to have the case dismissed and attempted to foreclose on the organization’s property. In May the Maetreum issued a press release saying:
The attorney for the Town admitted in court, on the record that the real reason for the denials of our property tax exemption … was to prevent “opening the floodgates to similar groups.” This is an open admission of discrimination. At this point, every single ruling by the Judge has been in our favor and we anticipate eventual victory.
In 2011 that victory came. The Maetreum received a “court ordered stay from all foreclosure proceedings until the resolution of its legal actions against the Town of Catskill.” Judge George P. Pulver Jr. of the state Supreme Court in Greene County ruled in favor of the Maetreum. The case garnered national attention through an article printed in The New York Times.
Shortly after Pulver’s ruling, the Maetreum petitioned the Town’s Board of Assessment Review once again. Just as before the request was denied. By December the case was back in court.
In 2012 Supreme Court Judge Richard Platkin reversed Pulver’s decision and ruled in favor of the Town stating:
The Court has no reason to doubt the sincerity of the religions and spiritual beliefs of the adherents of the Cybaline Revival who testified in these proceedings. But regardless of the sincerity of these beliefs and the importance that Cybaline Revival doctrine may attach to the property and its religious use … the Court finds that the property’s principal and predominant use at relevant times was residential, rather than religion, in nature.
By the time of the ruling, both parties had invested large sums of money in fighting the case. Neither the town nor Rev. Platine had any plans of backing down. According to a 2011 Daily Mail article, acting Catskill Town Supervisor Patrick Walsh said that “the town was already too deep into the case to give up and that significant dollars could be saved by preventing exemptions for illegitimate religions.”
In 2013 the Maetreum of Cybele filed an appeal with the Appellate Division of the state’s Supreme Court. On Nov. 21 a three-judge panel ruled in favor of the Maetreum stating:
Considering the testimony, [the Maetreum of Cybele] met its burden to demonstrate that it uses the property primarily for its religious and charitable purposes.
This legal victory was a watershed event for the Pagan community. Once again the story made national news. This time it was in Forbes Magazine. After the ruling, the Maetreum of Cybele released a statement thanking everyone who had contributed to their fundraising efforts saying, “It is truly a win for all minority religions setting forth the standard that we Pagans are to be treated in law the same as the so called mainstream religions.”Despite the victory, the year 2013 wasn’t without its problems. Twice that fall the Maetreum building fell victim to vandals. As described by Rev. Platine, that September a young man hurled rocks at the building while screaming “anti-LGBT slurs, swearing and taunting [them with] anti-Pagan slurs.” Then in December rocks were once again thrown at the building causing more exterior damage. The local police called the incidents “criminal mischief.”
At the start of 2014, the Town of Catskill filed an appeal with the New York State Court of Appeals. According to the Watershed Post, this court only hears a very small percentage of the presented cases. In 2012 that number was 6.4 percent. Therefore “the court’s decision to accept the [Town’s] appeal came as a surprise to Deborah Schneer, the lawyer for the Maetreum.”
Now in its seventh year, the case sits in the hands of the Court of Appeals. The Maetreum of Cybele stated:
The chairman of the Board of Catskill once vowed they would never give up their fight against what he called an illegitimate religion and Catskill is keeping that promise by appealing our victory to the highest court in New York once again forcing us to raise a large amount of money for a legal defense.
The Maetreum of Cybele is currently collecting funds for the next phase in their ongoing battle with the Town of Catskill. According to its Monday press release, the organization needs to raise $15,000 to cover all its new legal expenses. The Maetreum adds, “Our appellate level win made Forbes magazine as a significant victory for minority religious rights, don’t let Catskill spend us out of this major win.”
The Appeals Court isn’t expected to issue a ruling until the fall. We will continue to follow and report on the case as it progresses.